By Dirk Chatelain
J Alumni News staff
It never happened.
When President Lyndon Johnson announced to America in August of 1964 that North Vietnam, unprovoked, had attacked the U.S. destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of Vietnam, his constituents and newspapers across the country blindly took his word for it. Johnson's message led to an increase in American military involvement in Southeast Asia and, ultimately, the Vietnam War.
It wasn't until years later that Americans learned there was no North Vietnamese attack on the night of Aug. 4, 1964.
How would history be different today had there been an embedded journalist on the Maddox that night?
The mass media in an ever-changing internationally unsettled environment face a challenge that many of its members have never encountered before. Following two years when foreign policy issues and fear of terror have gripped the American mind, journalists strive to remain objective and skeptical while maintaining the sense of perspective gained that September Tuesday morning in 2001.
Still, questions and concerns within the industry lack definite answers. Balancing domestic and international coverage and overcoming limited access, fierce competition and the public's insatiable desire for sound bites instead of in-depth coverage have forced even the best in the field to adapt on the run.
The complete picture won't be painted for many more years but 9/11 and the war in Iraq have altered, perhaps forever, the way print and broadcast media cover government.
Embedded journalism is the prime example.
When Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March, American reporters were stationed in military units around the Middle East to give viewers and readers the play-by-play. It was the first war in American history where journalists have been granted such close access to the front lines.
"That was one of the most remarkable things from a media perspective," CNN affiliate producer Tom Laabs said. "Even Gen. Tommy Franks said he thought it was a great idea having the media ride along with the American troops."
Instead of hearing outcomes of troop movements and battles second-hand, embedded journalists gave live reports, often in the face of danger, that brought war into the family living room like never before.
Deanna Sands, managing editor of the Omaha World-Herald, said embedded reporting may have revolutionized war coverage, but it might not be beneficial in the long run. Sure, there's more battlefield information now available. But at what cost? By the end of the war, Sands said, journalists frequently said "we" and "our" when referring to the military units from which they reported.
"How can you be appropriately skeptical and questioning when you're completely dependent on somebody for your livelihood, so to speak?" Sands said.
But Jeff Zeleny, a national political correspondent at the Chicago Tribune, said embedded reporting has allowed journalists to stay up-to-date not only in their broadcasts and copy but in their questions to military leaders. Embedded reporting offers insight into the front lines that wouldn't otherwise be available, he said.
When a U.S. soldier in the 101st Airborne Division attacked members of his unit in March, embedded journalists were on the scene to report the incident immediately.
"If they hadn't been there, who knows when that would've come out?" Zeleny said.
Ken Paulson, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center at The Freedom Forum, said if the war had gone badly, the American public would have been able to see had gone wrong instead of waiting for press releases that told the story. It's worth the risk to reporters' personal safety, he said.
Laabs said because the war went so well, having journalists with the military was great propaganda for the Bush administration. That probably wasn't a coincidence, said Lyle Denniston.
Denniston, a Supreme Court reporter in Washington since 1958, said embedded journalism was a calculated policy designed by the Bush administration to make certain that reporters weren't roaming the Iraqi countryside in search of a story. It was a way for the administration to influence, if only a little, the media's work.
The influence is obvious. Look at Peter Arnett's dismissal from NBC after he criticized America's war effort in an interview with an Iraqi television station. That was too much press freedom for the military, Laabs said.
And perhaps the administration's strategy has worked.
The media have historically been government watchdogs. But the watchdog may have fallen asleep during the war, Denniston said.
He said journalists have been highly sympathetic to the war effort and to the Bush administration. Media coverage about the United States' "gross failure of international diplomacy" was minimal in the days leading up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Denniston said.
Denniston said the press hadn't been diligent in analyzing Bush's strict terrorism policy or his "drastic interpretations" of constitutional law that have "twisted an enormous number of Supreme Court historic decisions about limits on the powers of the presidency."
In an America that doesn't seem as safe as it once did, a noticeable level of paranoia exists. People want to read about positives, not more reasons to fear. It's one reason Democrats don't come down hard on Bush regarding economic struggles. It's why the Dixie Chicks get blasted and labeled "unpatriotic" for making a comment critical of Bush.
Journalists can't fall into that trap, Denniston said. Some have, though. Overall, the mass media haven't maintained a proper level of skepticism, he said.
"I think there is a distinct change in the degree to which the people in the press are sympathetic to the administration," said Denniston, attributing that benefit of the doubt to a developing conservative bias among the media in Washington. "I think George Bush has essentially been given a free ride by the media very much the same way that Ronald Reagan was."
Zeleny noticed a similar trend. While many recent stories have detailed the return home of soldiers and prisoners of war, Zeleny said, very little has been written about the failure to discover Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
Paulson said the race for television ratings, especially by cable networks, has resulted in pro-war coverage that lacks objectivity.
Paulson's contention may be related to the glut of news sources in radio, television and print media. Viewers want the "home team" to be portrayed positively, he said. But doing so may not tell the whole story.
In constant competition for ratings and readers, journalists don't research subjects adequately, often seeking the 30-second clip instead of the complete version, Denniston said.
That's a result of viewers' desires, Laabs said.
"I think if you polled most viewers, they'd rather know about certain things somewhat in-depth than know about a smaller number of things completely while being left out of other stories," said Laabs, a CNN affiliate producer and 1993 UNL graduate.
But the trend toward simplifying the news may be a dangerous one. Paulson said "dumbing down" of television has been going on for 30 years. The result is some important stories don't get covered as thoroughly as they should, Paulson said.
How, for example, does a reporter summarize campaign finance reform in less than a minute, as is the goal for many cable news networks? Paulson asked.
War-story competition exists not only in broadcasting but in print media as well.
The rise of online publications, cable news networks like MSNBC, has created an atmosphere where competition is "as fierce as its ever been in the history of this country," Laabs said.
Sands said more doesn't necessarily mean better when it comes to coverage.
"You get into the competitive mode and you forget what you're supposed to be doing for the viewer and the reader," she said. "You start reporting things that may not be of substance simply because you know you have to have something new constantly."
Among other concerns and issues facing today's journalists:
Balancing international war coverage with news from down the street.
"What I found dismaying is how everything else in the world dropped off," Sands said. "The rest of the world didn't stop happening, but we certainly acted as if it did."
Sands said the news wire was flooded with war coverage, overlooking other international news and domestic issues. It's one reason the development of severe acute respiratory syndrome, the disease referred to as SARS, surprised the media.
Maintaining access to information.
Zeleny, who covered the Justice Department when he first joined the Tribune nearly three years ago, said the government has limited access to more documents in the post- September 11 era.
Sands said changes in access at every level of government because of the Patriot Act are "potentially devastating."
Adjusting to increased security at government events.
When the president was to make a public appearance before 9/11, reporters dealt with a general security sweep of the area but nothing like what they go through now. Just getting into the same room as Washington's leaders can take hours.
In the summer of 2001, before 9/11, one of the nation's top news stories was a missing intern scandal involving California Rep. Gary Condit. Many media professionals would tell you the coverage of that story belonged on "Hard Copy," not CBS or NBC. Almost two years later, the headlines are back on major world issues.
If 9/11 and war have changed anything in the way journalists cover government, it may simply have provided a sense of perspective.
"From this point on, there's going to be a lot more emphasis on international policy and international news," Laabs predicted. Thanks to the terrorism attack nearly two years ago, Americans have been taught once again that they are part of a broader world, a world that demands their attention.